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Virtual Light Breathes Life Into Grim Future

Virtual Light
William Gibson.
Bantam Books, 325 pp., $21.95.

By Deborah A. Levinson
Advisory Board

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." So began Neuromancer, the William Gibson novel that has since become the Bible of the cyberpunk genre. Since 1984, when Neuromancer was published, Gibson has produced only three novels, including an unsatisfying collaboration with Bruce Sterling. Waiting for a Gibson novel is a slow process -- one must wait and wait, even forgetting about the author for a time -- until one day, new reviews appear in the paper.

Virtual Light is Gibson's first solo novel in five years. Unlike his other works, which take place in the blasted wastelands of American and Japanese cities at some indefinable point in the future, Virtual Light is set in Los Angeles and San Francisco of 2005, close enough to the present to make its technology and politics scarily plausible.

California has split into two states, NoCal and SoCal. Massive earthquakes have rocked Tokyo and San Francisco, and both cities are recovering in different ways. Tokyo uses the latest in nano- and biotechnology to sprout a city from the ground, while hardy, iconoclastic San Franciscans turn the ruins of the Bay Bridge into a shantytown. Police gunships cruise the sky, searching for criminals; underground bunkers with private security have become the latest housing fashion in Los Angeles; and a popular evangelist preaches to his followers that they can find Jesus only by watching old movies on television.

Gibson focuses on Berry Rydell, security officer for IntenSecure and former member of the police force in Knoxville, Tenn. Rydell is a real magnet for bad luck: he loses his job in Knoxville after killing a drug addict; he loses the opportunity to sell his story when a grislier crime occurs to attract the TV crews; and he's demoted at IntenSecure after a band of computer hackers fool him and his partner into breaking up a "hostage situation" that turns out to be a little light S & M. Unable to land a job in LA, Rydell heads to San Francisco to work as a driver for Lucius Warbaby, a "skip-tracer," or futuristic combination of private detective and bounty hunter.

Gibson seems to have an affinity for loser protagonists -- moody, down-on-his luck cowboy Case from Neuromancer, unlucky meat puppet Mona of Mona Lisa Overdrive, and now Rydell, whose knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time earns him a place in the Gibson pantheon. Given that, Rydell is lucky indeed to take up with Chevette Washington, a spunky San Francisco bike courier who may be Gibson's best character since Molly Millions. Chevette shares a shack at the summit of the bridge with Skinner, the bridge's first occupant and de facto spiritual leader. Chevette's main worries in life are potential bike thieves until the night she sneaks into an upscale party and steals a pair of sunglasses from the repulsive man trying to hit on her.

Suddenly, everyone is after Chevette -- Rydell and Warbaby, the police, and IntenSecure all want her and the sunglasses. The glasses, of course, are no ordinary shades. They're a "virtual light" device that projects recorded tapes of virtual reality, in this case, a secret corporate vision of San Francisco's future.

What happens next is a gripping chase from NoCal to SoCal, with Rydell and Chevette alternately getting caught and eluding their pursuers in their effort to stay alive and carve a small piece of the future for themselves. (In the year 2005, there's apparently no social stigma about selling one's story for a large sum of money.)

Virtual Light is, put simply, Gibson's best book in years. While he may never again write anything quite as good as Neuromancer, Virtual Light comes close, managing to avoid both the voodoo spiritualism that clouded Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive and a pointlessly obscure ending, such as that in The Difference Engine. Gibson's dialogue and settings are as gritty and realistic as ever, and the action in Virtual Light never once slows down. Only the character of a Japanese grad student in sociology doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the picture, but it's easy to forgive one slip-up after having waited five years for new Gibson.

What is most wonderful about Virtual Light is its vision of a ruined future, a future not quite as dark and mercenary as that of Neuromancer, but still one where capitalism runs rampant and where the social stratification has grown so severe that the rich live in burrows underground, the poor in shacks on a swaying, broken-down bridge. Like Philip K. Dick before him, Gibson breathes life into his damned cityscapes, and it is only after reading Dick that one realizes how much Gibson owes to him, and how much the young cyberpunks owe to both authors. Like the glasses of its title, Virtual Light brings small shafts of brilliance to the darkness, illuminating something magical.